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More Mainers Are Trying Food Preservation, And It's Creating A Run On Supplies

UMaine Cooperative Extension screenshot
In the spring when the pandemic hit, resiliency skills made a big comeback

In the spring when the pandemic hit, resiliency skills made a big comeback. Stores were running out of flour as folks took up baking and posted loaves on Pinterest. Seed suppliers were wiped out as folks planted pandemic victory gardens, and it continues still, with gardeners now trying their hand at food preservation and creating another run on supplies.

Maine Public’s Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Kate McCarty, food systems professional with the UMaine Cooperative Extension, about the issue.

Ed. note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity

Mitchell: So is it true that there's sort of a renaissance in home canning right now?

McCarty: Yes, so the amount of home gardeners, first-time gardeners, we figured would certainly translate to the first-time canning, and so we thought we better get ahead of this and kind of mirror that. So we launched a weekly webinar schedule to try and meet this demand, have that information for people as they needed it. In a normal year, I teach about 400 people in our hands-on workshops, but since we've been delivering these webinars, we've reached about 1,300 people, and then our YouTube videos have over 2000 views.

We've also been seeing some reports that there are nationwide shortages of supplies associated with food preservation. Are you hearing that as well? What are you seeing?

So we've seen and heard people struggling to find the vinegar that they need for canning. And actually, we see that every year — big jugs of vinegar disappear from the shelves. But really, this year, it's been extremely difficult for people to find that, and there really is no substitution. And I've also heard people can't find pectin, which you use to make jam. And then there's the lids and jars, I've seen sections of stores where those supplies are located just completely empty.

If you see it, don't buy more than you think you'll need. If you see canning supplies on the shelves, take one or two boxes or jars of lids, but don't hoard them because that is also contributing to the problem. There is an actual shortage of these supplies as the manufacturing and supply chains in our country have been disrupted. Just take some for you and leave some for your fellow canners.

What if people just can't get those canning supplies that they need, and they're living in a jungle of zucchini? What else can people do?

So really when people are struggling to find supplies for canning, we always suggest freezing. It's a little bit less sexy than canning. It's not as Instagram or Pinterest-worthy, but your freezer really is a workhorse. Dehydrating, which is shelf stable. fermentation would need to be refrigerated or canned, but it certainly does add unique flavors to your vegetables. You can make your own sauerkraut or kimchi. And then there's storage. really the best way to store your local apples is in the refrigerator or in your cool cellar. And so people are going to be, we anticipate, stocking up in their root cellar as well.

And food preservation isn't something that you're going to want to get wrong for a variety of reasons. Is there any concern there that this big surge in first-timers, plus that scarcity of proper supplies, could lead to some problems?

Yes, every time there's an increase in demand for food preservation education, we know that people are of course opening up their internet browser and, and Googling and clicking on the top results or watching the YouTube channel. And these aren't always going to be research-based methods, which can create some real safety hazards. Best case you run the risk of a lower quality product, which after you've gone to all that trouble to grow and preserve the food, you want it to be something that your family and you are going to enjoy. Worst case is there is the risk of a foodborne illness. Of course botulism is always the thing that people associate with home canning, the risk is very low, but at the same time, the consequences are so severe, that we really do want to make sure that people are following the research-based methods, not just what YouTube or a blogger or what their grandmother has handed down to them.

I understand that that's actually partly why Cooperative Extension was created more than 100 years ago. And it sounds like agents I'm hearing they've been extraordinarily busy this year because of the pandemic and all that, but it's not entirely unprecedented.

My boss has worked with extension for over 25 years. So she has seen kind of this increased interest in our services from horticulture to nutrition and food preservation. First with like Y2K, and then 9/11, the Great Recession, and now the coronavirus pandemic. So every time there's that economic downturn, people turn to their local extensions, and we were always there, but people learn of us and come to us for this research-based information to know that they're getting up-to-date information from experts in this subject.